Over the past two weeks, two separate news stories have given the phrase "governing from the hip" a totally different meaning. One involved Iranian trousers; the other one, to put it mildly, did not.
The first story had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian youth engaging one another in Western fashion -- quite possibly the first direct "talks" since the 1979 revolution. The second involved a Likud-operated Twitter account that briefly followed an Iranian porn book feed.
Here is the first story, which relates to Netanyahu's diplomatic effort to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
In the run-up to his address at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this month, he faced a daunting task: How to upstage his own performance at the same forum in 2012.
He was all too cognizant that it was nearly impossible to replicate the success of his "red line" speech from last year, when he used a figurative bomb to illustrate his point on Iran's rapid nuclearization. And indeed, while this year's speech was well-crafted and well-received, it did not generate the same headlines, nor did it elicit the same viral response on social media.
A few days later, however, Netanyahu did manage to dominate social networks, albeit not on Iran's nuclear policy, but on its wardrobe. In an interview with BBC Persian he said: "I think if the Iranian people had their way, they'd be wearing blue jeans, they'd have Western music, they'd have free elections." As a result of his comments, many Iranians took to Facebook and other social media to prove Netanyahu wrong, uploading images of themselves wearing jeans and showcasing their "Western" lifestyle.
Of course Netanyahu's detractors loved this so-called gaffe and seized on this apparent factual inaccuracy. Netanyahu is detached, they said.
Now to the second story.
On Sunday, The Times of Israel reported that one of Netanyahu's Twitter accounts was among the followers of @PersianHotBook, which promotes pornographic material. The Likud Central Committee owned up to its mistake and said that the premier had nothing to do with it. (The official Prime Minister's Office account indeed never followed that Iranian Twitter handle.)
Obviously Netanyahu does not have to know what every staffer does on his behalf, let alone what low-level Likud operatives do in some small office far away from him. But these things will always be attributed to the leaders in whose names the social media accounts are operated.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry can tell him that, too. As this paper reported on Sept. 25, even the U.S. State Department has much to learn when it comes to social media. A mere few days after it proudly unveiled its new Instagram account, it uploaded a picture showing a flag labeled "Palestine," even though the U.S. does not recognize such a state. The picture showed misspellings and inaccuracies for other flags as well.
The two overarching lessons from Netanyahu's so-called Iranian blunders: Use your mistakes to your advantage. The nuances and the humorous twists in the rivalry between Iran and Israel are no less important than the serious rhetoric.
True, Netanyahu misspoke. He should have checked his facts on Iranian jeans, and he should have ensured that young party enthusiasts would not perform Twitter malpractice. But this misses the point. The buzz those two stories generated showed that Iranians, especially young ones, care about how they are (mis)perceived. When you talk to them (or about them), they listen; and when you talk "dugri" (bluntly and to the point, as Netanyahu famously said at the U.N. about his preferred method of engaging the Palestinians in 2011), they respond in kind.
For all the controversy on Iranian trousers and hairstyles, Netanyahu's detractors should have looked at the bigger picture: Iranians make laborious efforts when they want to change what people think about them and don't mind addressing the evil Zionist regime directly, via Facebook or other media.
This newfound method of engagement is no less important than the ripple effect created by the bomb diagram Netanyahu used as a prop over a year ago.
If Israel plays its hand right, it could try to engage Iranian youth on more substantive matters, including on the nuclear issue. Netanyahu could hold a weekly "fireside chat" with Iranians to take his case directly to the people. He could use those interactive engagements for two purposes: the first, to test just how far the regime of the supposed moderate President Hasan Rouhani is willing to go when it comes to freedom of expression. If he could successfully call Rouhani's bluff when it comes to civil liberties and social media censorship, he would have an easier task at calling him out on his deceptive charm offensive and misleading flexibility on the nuclear program. If the regime cracks down on average Iranians who chat with Israel's premier, Netanyahu will be able to stand on the side of Iranian youth and tell them: "You are being used as props by a paranoid regime that wants you to blindly trust it as it misspends the country's blood and treasure on something you don't need against an enemy that used to be your ally."
And this leads us to the other thing a digital engagement with Iran can achieve. Whatever comes out of this proposed online campaign, it will have been a success if Netanyahu manages to get the message across that Israel and Iran enjoyed about 30 years of warm relations before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. If so, Iranian youths might, just might, look at the Israeli "Little Satan" differently.
Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry already proved several years ago that Iranians are hungry for dialogue with Israelis. His "Israel Loves Iran" Facebook campaign to assure Iranians that Israel would never bomb them elicited surprising responses from Iranians who seized on this conciliatory rhetoric.
So, Mr. Prime Minister, you may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for a comprehensive digital engagement with average Iranians. Remember, the U.S. won the Cold War only after the USSR realized it had to choose between feeding the people or producing more ballistic missiles. It won because the Communist Party realized the average citizen was not on board with its world domination agenda.
With a carefully thought-out strategy, you can make Iran's nuclear program lose its appeal domestically and ultimately become obsolete.